THE TOMB OF SAINT PETER
Christian tradition and historical writings tell us that the saints Peter and Paul journeyed to Rome where they preached Christ’s message during the Roman persecutions. An ancient Christian story relates that Peter fled Rome to escape Nero, whose persecution had escalated dramatically following the great fire, blamed on the Christians, who were deemed to be superstitious and troublesome to Roman comity. On his way out of Rome, along the Appian Way, it is said that Peter met Christ walking in the other direction, towards Rome. Peter asked the Lord: “Quo vadis?” (“Where are you going?”); to which Christ relied: “I am going to Rome to be crucified again”. Ashamed to have once again failed to defend Christ, Peter turned back to Rome and there met his fate. An ancient Roman church dating back to the 8th century, called Domine Quo Vadis, marks the place where this is said to have occurred.
Tradition and contemporaneous histories tell us that, during the persecutions conducted by Nero, around 66 AD, after a long imprisonment, Peter was crucified upside down, at his own request, as he did not consider himself worthy to die in the manner Christ had died. We are told that the executioners dumped Peter’s body on a nearby hill which was used as a dumping ground for waste. It appears, however, that the early Catholics claimed the body and secretly buried it. The site almost immediately became a place of pilgrimage for them, in secret, subject as they were to extreme and cruel persecution. The name of that site was Vatican Hill.
Immediately outside the Sistine Chapel, is located Michaelangelo’s last fresco, “The Crucifixion of St Peter”. The image depicts St Peter crucified upside down on Vatican Hill. Michaelangelo inserted a portrait of himself in the top left hand corner – a sad witness, clad in a blue cap, (blue caps were worn by sculptors to protect their hair from the dust).
The Emperor Constantine built the first St Peter’s Basilica in Rome as a memorial 250 years after St Peter’s death. Tradition has it that the construction of the Basilica was directly over St Peter’s grave. In his desire to diminish the legitimacy of the Papacy and the existence of the priesthood as a divinely ordained entity, Luther had cast aspersions on the tradition by which St Peter was said to have been in Rome and died there. Attempts in 1513 and 1683 to locate the tomb of St Peter failed.This failure by the Vatican to locate the tomb of the first Pope, at the time of the reformation, was seized upon by reformers to cast doubt upon the traditional history as a means of diminishing the legitimacy of Apostolic succession and the supernatural nature of the Catholic priesthood.
On February 11th 1939, Pope Pius XI died. An extraordinary and much-loved man, he asked to be buried under St Peter’s Basilica in a simple grave. The Secretary of State, Eugenio Pacelli, (soon to be Pius XII), who particularly admired and loved his predecessor, endeavoured to accommodate his wishes and engaged an excavation team to dig beneath the Basilica for a grave for the deceased Pope and a small chapel to surround it. Because the area below the Vatican was only 6 feet high and the floor loomed above, they had to dig down. As they were excavating, a workman fell through the floor, finding himself in an amazing unknown world with bright murals of roses, birds, fruit cupids and pretty winged beings – Roman funeral murals from the height of the Roman Empire. The workmen had encountered the burial site of the daughter of a Roman consul. Then they discovered something even more intriguing – the simple grave of a Christian woman from the mid-second century, with Christian inscriptions on the tomb- an early Latin reading “Dormit in pace” and an image of a woman drawing water from a well, (a Christian symbol). Next to her grave were the words “Sweet souled Gorgania”. This was an astounding discovery because, during the first few centuries after Christ, Christianity was an illegal and much-persecuted cult. Symbolic representations of Catholic sites or graves were exceedingly rare – a few inscriptions in a cave in Istanbul, various marks in the catacombs, coded messages through the fish symbol, (the Ichthus), the Good Shepherd and the cross. On this discovery, the construction of the grave at that site was halted and the Cardinal Pacelli, (soon to be Pius XII), was informed of the discovery.*
At a time when the Vatican was surrounded by Fascist Blackshirts, in an Italy that was later to be invaded by Hitler’s army, Pope Pius XII organized a team to excavate the necropolis underneath the Vatican, searching for the burial place of St Peter. In an environment where the Fascist rulers liked to see themselves as drawing upon the historical warlike nature of Imperial Rome, (their name “Fascisti” referred to the Fasces of the Roman army), it was imperative that the existence of the archeological site be kept secret. To ensure secrecy, the excavation team was confined to Vatican workers and priests. No power tools were used, both to avoid detection and to minimize destruction.
The Liber Pontificalis (“Book of the Popes”) is a record of the Popes maintained for 1,500 years, with biographies from St Peter until Pope Pius II in 1464. According to the Liber Pontificalis, Constantine had surrounded the grave with a marble enclosure, the Trophy of Gaius, and then centred the original St Peter’s Basilica directly over St Peter’s remains. Legend had it that the bones of St Peter were located near to the Trophy of Gaius.
The excavations began in 1940. Beneath the Vatican, the team encountered pagan tombs dating to around 150 AD. The team engaged on the excavations comprised of Vatican workers under the leadership of Father Ludwig Kaas, and conducted by Father Ferrua. Father Ferrua seemed to be a complex personality, refusing to take notice of Father Kaas and taking centre-stage in the proceedings. It seems that he was not only unqualified in archeology, but was also convinced of his superiority, a person who failed to show Christian spirit or humility. Ferrua discovered some bones which, he deduced, were the bones of St Peter and which were then stored in the Papal Apartments for more than ten years. He received much acclaim for this discovery, including an article in the 1950 edition of Time Magazine. In his excavations, however, Father Ferrua had failed to follow basic archeological guidelines and had ignored vital clues as to the whereabouts of the grave site of St Peter. *
The excavations had revealed a wall underneath the Basilica, called “the Graffiti Wall” on which coded scribblings dating from the first century had been made. These scribblings were arrogantly deemed meaningless by Ferrua. Underneath the Graffiti Wall, Ferrua had uncovered bones which he had designated to be of no value and had promptly discarded, to the horror of Father Kaas, who was appalled that he had treated human remains with such a lack of respect. Father Kaas, who, as a priest, refused to countenance such treatment of the bones, (note – by a priest), labeled the bones and placed them in a box, to be kept safe.
In 1950, Cardinal Montini, the future Pope Paul VI, following upon the death of Father Kaas, engaged Margherita Guarducci, a renowned archeologist, to work on the project. On her commencement on the project, Guarducci was, predictably, appalled by Ferrua’s failure to follow basic procedure. Astonishingly, no systematic photographic record had been made. Many inscriptions, left uncovered, had been without protection against the elements.
“Things got worse when Guarducci noticed a photograph of an inscription on a wall in a 1951 article by Ferrua. When she searched for the inscription at its site, it was no longer in the necropolis. She learned that Ferrua had removed it to his home, ostensibly to study it. A direct order from Pius XII secured its return.” The inscription read, “Peter is here”.*
Guarducci’s first discovery was the inscription, “In Hoc Signo Vinces” (“In this sign conquer”), the famous vision of Constantine. The Necropolis had originally been sealed by the construction of the first St Peter’s Basilica in 337 AD, so the inscription must have been carved less than 18 years after Constantine’s victory – confirming the ancient legend.
The Emperor Constantine, at the time a pagan, later told his friend, Bishop Eusebius, that, prior to the battle of Milvian Bridge, he had prayed that the true God, whoever He may be, would reveal to him His identity and stretch forth his hand to help him. Constantine and his men then saw a bright cross emblazoned against the sky with the inscription In Hoc Signo Vinces” (“In this sign conquer”). Following victory in the battle, Constantine constructed the first Basilica dedicated to St Peter at the behest of his mother, St Helena.
It is to be noted that the Basilica constructed by Constantine was done in a manner that involved considerable, (and, at first glance, inexplicable), effort and expense. First, instead of locating the Basilica in the centre of the Hill, Constantine had engaged in a massive landfill to render the surrounding environment sufficiently level to construct the church, thus creating the conditions that preserved the Necropolis, (and saved the graves from later vandalism at the hands of the Visigoths, Vandals and Saracens).
Furthermore, to the curiosity of the excavation team, the dimensions of the Necropolis did not conform to the Roman predilection for symmetry. Constantine’s engineers built the original St Peter’s directly over the marble box enclosing what is called the Trophy of Gaius, surrounded by a simple wall, covered in scribbling, and termed, “the Graffiti Wall.” At the time of construction, however, there was no structural purpose served by the Graffiti Wall, and it would have been logical for it to have been removed. Yet the Graffiti Wall was left intact, enclosed within Constantine’s monument. This engineering decision had resulted in an asymmetrical dimension to the structure – larger on one side than the other. Leaving the Graffiti Wall intact required that Constantine’s architects move their marble box off centre by 18 inches, the width of the Graffiti Wall. To the perfectionist Roman engineers, this anomaly could only have been because the 4th century engineers knew that the Graffiti Wall signified, or contained, something extremely important. When Guarducci saw the Graffiti Wall, it was apparent to her trained eye that the inscriptions were not meaningless, as Ferrua had reported.
In a tomb thirty feet from the centre of the altar constructed by Constantine, Guarducci found an overlooked inscription meaning “Christian men buried near your body”. She noticed a hole in the bottom of the Graffiti Wall, which upon examination, she found to be an ancient marble-lined niche. She asked a workman, Giovanni Segoni, whether any artefact or relic had been found there. Segoni told her about the bones that had been discovered in the cavity in 1942. Father Kaas, horrified by Ferrua’s disrespect for the remains, had asked Segoni to remove the bones from the marble niche, place them in a wooden box, label and place them in a storeroom. There they had lain for more than a decade. Guarducci made a full report to Cardinal Montini and Pope Pius XII, following which, in the wake of Kaas’ death, in 1953, Guarducci was made the head of the project and Ferrua was completely excluded, relegated to an administrative position in the Vatican. Ferrua nursed a hatred for Guarducci which he articulated by invective, defaming her with vicious ridicule at every opportunity. Guarducci simply ignored it.
Guarducci found, within the Graffiti Wall, the inscription, “Near Peter”. Then, placing the inscription recovered from Ferrua’s house in a its proper place, she read, “Peter is within”. She found early Catholic symbols, such as the fish symbol dating from the early 100’s, together with inscriptions dating from the late 100’s in the nature of “Peter pray for me”. She found Peter’s name inscribed on the Graffiti Wall more than 20 times. This signified that the early Catholics had prayed to Peter here in the presence of his relics.
In 1956, Pius XII engaged Professor Venerando Correnti, of Palermo University, Europe’s most esteemed medical anthropologist, to make a detailed study of the bones discovered by Ferrua. Professor Correnti reported that the bones were not those of St Peter, but of several individuals, none of which fitted the description. Following upon the Professors’ report, Guarducci submitted the bones discovered in the Graffiti Wall and saved by Father Kaas to expert examination.
Professor Correnti reported the bones to be those of a sixty to seventy year old robust male. They had originally been buried in the dirt next to the Graffiti Wall, as evidenced by the soil still clinging to them after 1,700 years. It was also determined that they had once been covered by an early purple and gold cloth whose dye was of a type that was only used by Imperial Romans of the first to the third centuries. The bones were compatible with a person who was crucified upside down. The feet had been severed as the Roman soldiers were wont to do, because the cutting off the feet was easier than removal of nails. The bones had been moved to the Graffiti Wall between 250 AD, when the Graffiti Wall was built and 337 AD when the Necropolis was sealed. The bones had remained there until 1941.
The body of St Peter, his feet cut off, had been discarded on Vatican Hill where his followers buried him and prayed at his grave in secret, erecting a trophy over it and writing coded prayers around it. His bones were later moved, most probably during the great persecutions of Catholics by Valerius and Diocletian.
Pope Benedict XVI initiated a review of all the evidence relating to the grave sites of SS Peter and Paul, both of whom had been executed in Rome by Nero. On 28 June 2009, Pope Benedict confirmed that the gravesite of Paul on the Port Road to Ostia, (the place of his beheading), outside the walls of Rome, was authentic. Carbon dating of the bones in St Paul’s tomb confirmed them as his authentic remains.
On 24 November 2013, Pope Francis displayed the Graffiti Wall bones, after a detailed review of all the evidence had been conducted by retained experts. Pope Francis announced the relics as those of St Peter, then, in a public ceremony, he returned the bones to the Graffiti Wall where they had been discovered seventy years before.
The bones, authenticated, affirm Peter’s burial on Vatican Hill and his presence and martyrdom in Rome. The bones remain on display today in the Graffiti Wall under the Vatican, accessible through a public entrance.